Trailing Syracuse 14-7 with three minutes remaining in the first quarter, Clemson faced 3rd-and-1 from their own 47-yard-line. The Tigers needed an answer after yielding a two-play, 80-yard scoring drive to the Orange.
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They didn't get it. Running back Travis Etienne ran into an army of Syracuse defenders at the line of scrimmage. He arguably could've bounced it to the outside, though that option appeared unlikely to produce a more fruitful result.
Etienne didn't touch the ball again for 27 game minutes.
The 5-foot-10, 200-pounder is a true freshman with sprinter speed from Jennings, La., where he was a four-star prospect, the No. 15 running back in the country and the lone player at his position in the Tigers' 2017 recruiting class. He did not enroll early to join a crowded group vying to replace Wayne Gallman, the program's fifth-ranked all-time leading rusher. Tavien Feaster, Adam Choice and C.J. Fuller were among returning players expected to earn more chances than Etienne.
Appeared to be destined for a redshirt or limited-use reserve role, all he needed was eight carries (81 yards and one touchdown) in the season opener vs. Kent State to prove he was a valuable weapon for an offense that lost 77.6 percent of their 2016 yards, third-most in the FBS.
“He just runs with desperation every single play. That’s what you love about him,” head coach Dabo Swinney said after Etienne ran for 98 yards on six carries in their Week 2 win at Louisville, including a tackle-breaking 81-yards touchdown (below). “He’s been on the road. He’s been in an environment. He’s had some success. He’s made some mistakes. You just grow through it.”
Through three games Etienne — while donning Gallman's No. 9 jersey — had 292 yards and four touchdowns (12.7 yards per carry) before posting modest numbers against Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, both of whom rank among the nation's best rush defenses (3.4 and 3.5 yards per carry, respectively). Then came Friday night vs. Syracuse, when he started with three carries for 10 yards, including the third-down stuff in the first quarter.
Clearly, Dabo Swinney and/or co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott (also the running backs coach) and Jeff Scott saw something they didn't like, because Etienne didn't have another carry until six minutes remained in the third quarter.
Trailing by seven again and, again, in dire need of an answer to another quick Syracuse scoring drive, this time Etienne provided it.
He took the 1st-and-10 handoff from their own 48-yard-line and, this time, did bounce it outside, evading the tackle of Orange linebacker Zaire Franklin on his way to a 52-yard touchdown.
Etienne, who has forced 17 missed tackles (on 51 caries) this season and leads ACC running backs in Pro Football Focus elusive rating, touched the ball one more time the remainder of the game. He had no carries in the fourth quarter.
Let's stop well short of saying more Etienne would've equaled a Clemson win. He hasn't been perfect, occasionally missing a cut, and Tavien Feaster and Adam Choice were effective against the Orange, combining to average 6.9 yards per carry (Feaster's 37-yard scoring run on their opening drive was big). Nonetheless, in averaging nearly nine yards per tote, Travis Etienne has proven he deserves more opportunities.